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Sea Transportation: Missiles, Tankers Or Terror

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Strategy Page

January 16, 2021:

In Iran, the IRGC (Islamic Revolution Guard Corps) has its own “Navy of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution”. Since the main job of the IRGC is to protect the religious dictatorship from the Iranian armed forces and a growing number of angry Iranians. As a result, the IRGC Navy has about as many personnel navy (23,000), including marines and naval aviation, with about 40 large missile and torpedo boats (100-200 tons each) and over a thousand smaller craft, many of them just speedboats with dual outboard engines and machine-gun mounts.


For actual wartime use or for seizing foreign ships, up to a dozen “revolutionary guardsmen” will be found on these small boats, armed with assault rifles, machine-guns, and RPGs. Some boats are equipped as suicide bomb craft and only carry a crew of two or three, plus half a ton or more of explosives. Some of these craft have been seen with anti-tank missiles. The “Guardian Navy” also has a few helicopters and several thousand “marines.” The small boats spend a lot of time at sea, mainly patrolling the 2,800-kilometer-long coastline. This includes 740 kilometers in the Caspian Sea. The most active coastline is in the Persian Gulf but the IRGC mission is to keep an eye on the entire country, especially the regular military and any new threats or opportunities. As a result, these small boats wear out quickly and new ones are constantly being delivered, often in large batches. That is usually turned into a media event. The IRGC is a major practitioner of Information War (militarized public relations.)

The IRGC builds its own small boats and regularly holds highly publicized ceremonies to induct new boats into the IRGC Navy. The most recent such event was held in May 2020 for 112 new armed speedboats. Most of these were Zolfaqar, Heidar and Meead type boats. The Zolfaqar is a speedboat with a top speed of 120 kilometers an hour and capable of carrying two Nast 1 anti-ship missiles. It is unclear how effective these 350 kg (550 pound) missiles are when fired from a fast-moving 16.3-meter (52 foot) Zolfaqar. The rocket propelled Nasr 1 has a range of 35 kilometers and uses a small radar in the nose to detect and home in on the largest ship it encounters. In clear weather, the crew of a Zolfaqar could spot the superstructure of a warship or large commercial ship up to 15 kilometers away. Then you turn the boat towards it, fire a Nasr 1 and hope for the best. It would take less than a minute for the missile to reach the target. A warship, if its defensive systems were turned on, could probably destroy or mislead (jam the radar) of the missile. A commercial vessel, like a tanker or cargo ship would probably get hit. If a tanker were loaded the missile would probably start a fire if the hull was hit. If the superstructure was hit the 100 kg (220 pounds) of explosives in the warhead would do a lot of damage but not sink the ship and would probably not even stop it. Large commercial ships have proved quite capable of taking a missile hit and keep going. While Zolfaqars can haul two 350 kg Nasr 1 missiles, none have been seen firing them and hitting a distant target. Nasr 1 is meant for use from larger surface ships, shore batteries (fired from a truck) or launched from a helicopter.


The Iranian Navy is led by officers who think along more conventional lines. Western ship commanders generally have good professional relationships with their Iranian counterparts, even when the Iranian Navy is under orders to give Western ships a hard time. If an Iranian captain radios that “he has his orders” it means he will follow through with whatever bizarre actions he has been ordered to carry out but will be apologetic about it to his foreign peers.

The Iranian Navy has fewer options than the Revolutionary Guard, simply because the navy has fewer and larger (easier to spot and hit) ships. Since 2005 the navy has generally been stationed on the Indian Ocean and the Caspian Sea, while the Revolutionary Guard has been given responsibility for the Persian Gulf and protecting all those Iranian oil facilities along the coast. Actually, the Revolutionary Guard is there more as a threat to Arab oil fields and tankers because the Arabs and their Western allies have control of the air and can destroy Iranian oil fields and tankers that way.

What the Iranians hope to do at sea is create as formidable a threat as possible, even if this threat, in the form of suicidal speedboats and missile boats backed up by shore-based anti-ship missiles, is short-term. In the long run, any Iranian naval power is toast.

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